Sometime in the mid-1970s, Amira Abdul-Wakeel baked her first cake in her West Oak Lane childhood home. Her sister and a very close girlfriend all pitched in, and they beamed with pride at their pound cake.
Then her mom came home, and exclaimed, “That’s the best corn bread I’ve ever had.”
Slighted, but not defeated, Abdul-Wakeel set on the path to make an even better pound cake that would taste like pound cake, and began her baking journey.
“Philadelphia used to have a lot of little bakeries, and I would just ask ‘Can I come to help?’, so I could learn. And I did,” she explains. “By the time I was 12 or 13, I could finally make that pound cake.”
Today, Abdul-Wakeel bakes baked goods, both vegan and non-vegan, and sells them at the East Falls and Fairmount farmer markets. And soon Amira’s Delites will also be available at Weaver’s Way Co-op’s Mount Airy store-front.
The current iteration of Abdul-Wakeel’s Delites began three years ago. While competing in a bake-off, Abdul-Wakeel was introduced to the Enterprise Center, which helped her understand how to get insurance, price her product, and pitch to potential vendors.
“Then the Enterprise Center approached me and said, the University of Pennsylvania would like a vegan cookie. ‘Can you make a vegan cookie?’” she recalls. “Well, you know, the scientist in me said, ‘Oh, that’s the challenge. How do I make a really good vegan cookie?’”
Abdul-Wakeel had observed vegan bakers at bake-offs. One time she saw an attempted vegan cookie that did not look appetizing. Abdul-Wakeel did not recognize any of the ingredients that the baker had used and affirmed to herself, ‘That is not what I want.’
“I want you to be able to read the ingredients, and immediately know what you’re eating,” she says. “So that’s what I set out to do. And I did a pretty good job. For almost six months, I had a contract with University of Pennsylvania, making them vegan cookie dough.”
In 2012, Abdul-Wakeel earned a master’s of education at Drexel University. Serving as a parent’s ombudsman at what was formerly Leeds Middle School and now Hill Freedman World Academy on Mount Pleasant Avenue, Abdul-Wakeel helped parents navigate the Philadelphia school system, which then led to a conversation with a principal who encouraged her to become a teacher through a program designed to create teachers from parent ombudsmen.
Before the pandemic, Abdul-Wakeel taught a class at the Free Library called, “Baking with Science.”
“We would learn the science of baking, and they would learn proportions and ratios, and how to do baking using ratios. The brilliant thing is it always turns out perfectly when you use the ratio,” she says.
Before the pandemic, Abdul-Wakeel also taught classes at the Church of the Crucifixion in South Philly and St. Mark’s Church in Center City. “They have a soup kitchen, and I taught several baking classes teaching how to bake bread,” she explains. “[Participants] were able to make two loaves of bread and they were able to donate one, [or both] to the soup kitchen.”
While teaching, Abdul-Wakeel sees this kind of community engagement as an invitation to talk about other local issues like food desserts. “How can you eliminate a food desert in your community?” Abdul-Wakeel believes in communal gardening as a possible anecdote. “Even the trash man loves my tomatoes,” Abdul-Wakeel recounts while describing her own foray into vegetable gardening in her West Oak Lane yard.
Real ingredients matter to Abdul-Wakeel. Her search for nutritious and pure flour took her to Castle Valley Mill in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Local herbs and fruit are also sourced from McCann’s farm, another East Falls market vendor to make it as much of a “community-based business” as possible. “I just try my best,” she says.
The entrepreneur instincts seemingly run in the family.
Abdul-Wakeel’s granddaughter, Anisah Lucas Brown, started a lemonade business. Anisah learned how to squeeze the lemons, bottle it, freeze it, and sell it. “Anisah and her mother are going to try to get their own stands [at farmers markets] this summer,” Abdul-Wakeel says. “But still be with me.”